” I nearly wore my bow tie, thank goodness I didn’t,” mused Andrew as the Hamiltons breezed through the foyer of the Vaudeville Theatre at the press night of Oscar Wilde‘s An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville Theatre. Andrew hates competition.
It was another glittering, but surprisingly celebrity-lite opening. Neil and Christine were there, the former sporting a pink bow artfully matched with Christine’s outfit.
But it has given Phil an idea. Next time the Whingers will coordinate too. Andrew will wear something blue to set off Phil’s varicose veins and Phil will wear something mis-shapen to match Andrew’s face.
Lesley Garrett was there too.
But was this a rather cruel, underhanded publicity stunt on the part of producer Kim Poster? Several critics have observed that the presence of the corrupt Mr Hamilton in the audience was rather delicious in the light of the political scandal that threatens to unravel on the stage. But one suspects it wasn’t underhand; one suspects it was quite overhand, the Hamiltons seemingly being even more devoid of shame than the free-loading Whingers. Phil was delighted to be in the same room with the woman from whom he learned his seduction technique but Andrew was disinclined to grant them the oxygen of attention (or, as somebody once quipped about somebody else, the oxygen of oxygen) and watched Charles Spencer falling up the stairs instead.
But if the audience wasn’t exactly glittering at least the stage was. Stephen Brimson Lewis‘ burnished gold settings which subtly change to represent various rooms of Sir Robert Chiltern’s Grosvenor Square House and much less subtly the Library of Lord Goring’s House in Curzon Street. Plus there are gorgeously lavish ever-changing costumes and millinery which alone could almost have got the Whingers through the three hours of Wilde’s play.
But first there was the 20 minutes of generally sub-standard Wildean epigrams to get through. Some are amusing but many fall flat, and it’s not until the plot kicks in that things really pick up.
Sir Robert (Alexander Hanson, convincingly decent) is probably the titular ideal husband, but is he really? His wife (Rachael Atlanta Sterling, daughter to Dame Diana Rigg) certainly thinks so. But the scheming, ne’er-do-well Mrs Cheveley (Samantha Bond) who’ll have her fingers in your jewellery box faster than you can say “Reading Gaol” knows that as a young man he wasn’t so perfect and made his fortune selling a political secret and is out to blackmail him.
As the plot unfolds things become rather gripping. But they really shouldn’t discuss the career-ruining secrets in such loud voices, there’s always a hoarde of servants lurking just outside the doors. Haven’t these people watched Downton Abbey? Or is this unexplored plot device being saved for the Royal Court? Perhaps the Chilterns only employ deaf staff.
Anyway, once we’ve gotten over the sluggish opening scene in which the actors have to do a lot of rhubarbing, it becomes rather absorbing for the most part. There is some brave casting: the normally masculine or masculine-acting Elliot Cowan (Stanley in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire and more recently a Macbeth whose clothes kept falling off at The Globe) is here bewhiskered to resemble an effete and languid Derren Brown. He is wonderfully preening. And since Lady Chiltern and Mrs Cheveley were supposedly at school together one might ungallantly wonder at the 15 year age gap between the actresses.
Turns out that Mrs Cheveley is not the only person prone to a bit of thieving as Caroline Blakiston‘s elderly Lady Markby steals every second of her big scene as she rambles on and on and on and on. The scene doesn’t do the play much service but the Whingers could have happily sat through it for the full three hours. Such was the scale of the larceny that it was surprising we weren’t left looking at a bare stage after her exit to appreciative applause.
Anyway, Samantha Bond (who is married to Hanson in real life) makes an excellent villainess and Rachel Stirling is occasionally thrillingly like her mother (and occasionally, in profile, like a young Emily Bishop nee Nugent). So all in all, a rather pleasing evening.